Bronze-level articleActions punishable by death in the Old Testament

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For it is so written in

The Bible


The Christian Old Testament (Tanakh for all Jewish readers) contains a large number of crimes which demand the death penalty.


[edit] General

The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (the source for the Christian Old Testament), which forms the core texts of the Halakha, or corpus of Jewish divine law, include a surprising number of crimes which merit the death penalty as punishment. These laws were believed to form an integral part of the overall "Covenant" between the Israelites and YHWH. When the Christians adopted the Old Testament as their canon, neither they as a body, or Jesus as the Messiah revised or redacted any of these laws, for all they edited the Hebrew texts.

The biggest single set of death penalty crimes are sexual in nature followed by a whole set of religious prohibitions. It should be noted that things we consider sexual crimes (like rape and child abuse) are not what the Old Testament is talking about. Sexual transgressions typically relate to a failure to comport oneself (sexually) in a manner that adds to the community. Adultery and masturbation are as bad or worse than modern crimes of molestation or rape - simply because they challenged such moral issues as "Who of my children is really mine, so gets my land", and "The more sons I have the more land I can work, so the more money I own." Taken by the word of God alone, however, one just has to assume that God cares if you touch yourself or find someone sexy before you are married.

Though exactly why God should have such a deep and abiding interest in the sexual and marital predications of his creations is not clear. The religious laws describe the various rituals and taboos involved in the proper way of worshipping the Israelite God, and also seek to prevent apostasy. At least in this case, the reasoning behind assassinating anybody who stepped out of line is clear.

The rules in the Torah still form a part of the body of the Jewish law, though they fortunately cannot be considered a complete description of Jewish law. This is because no legal system can be fully understood without also considering the way its rules are being interpreted and applied in practice by the courts and other institutions of its society - or, for that matter, the body of rituals and social conventions surrounding such institutions. For example, a Jewish court could not say that it was acceptable to sell your daughter into slavery, even if that is the alternative to killing her for a misdeed. Today, only a few isolated Islamic courts have ever actually applied the death penalties for apostasy and sexual crimes in the modern era, despite the fact that many honor killings occur claiming to be legally sanctioned.[1]

The Jews are not stupid people, and understood quite quickly that too Draconian jurisprudence will have unintended consequences by leading into disrespect of the law instead of obedience. Therefore the rules on which death penalty could be sentenced were made very strict: the crime had to have four wittnesses, the convict himself had to declare committing a capital crime with full intention, and the Sanhedrin had to approve the sentence.

Note that the ancient Israelites used a stricter standard of evidence than modern judicial systems; four Torah-observant male eyewitnesses were required for conviction, and confessions were not considered admissible. Therefore, actual convictions leading to an execution would have been rarer than modern readers would assume. Later Jewish jurisprudence in the Talmud further restricted the standards for a capital conviction to the point where being convicted of a capital crime is practically impossible under modern Jewish law. A Sanhedrin who had sentenced one person to death in average of seven years was considered a very Draconian one.

The Western Jews ceased to apply the Halakha on capital crimes in the 3rd century CE. The Eastern Jews ceased to do so in the 12th century. All in all, the rule of thumb in Judaism is that when secular criminal law and religious criminal law contradict, the secular law is followed; the religious criminal law is observed only when secular criminal code is non-existent. This is quite the opposite the situation in Islam.

There are also a few fundamentalist Christians such as the followers of Dominionism who feel that the death penalties as described should to be enforced today.[2][3]

[edit] Sexual activities

  • Adultery (Leviticus 20:10-12, man and woman)
  • Lying about virginity. Applies to girls who are still in their fathers' homes, who lie about their virginity, and are presented to their husband as a virgin. The accused is guilty until proved innocent. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
  • The daughter of a priest practicing prostitution (death by fire) (Leviticus 21:9)
  • Rape of a virgin who is engaged. If she is not engaged you only have to offer to marry her and give her father 50 shekels. No mention is made of the girl’s opinion, and no punishment is specified for raping a single non-virgin female. (Deuteronomy 22:25)
  • Being the victim of rape, if one is an engaged female virgin and the rape occurs in a city. If it takes place in a field, the victim is spared because nobody would have heard her screams. (Deuteronomy 22:23-27) Presumably, virgins who scream for help inside a city will always be rescued.
  • Men practicing bestiality. (Both man and animal die). (Leviticus 20:15) [4]
  • Women practicing bestiality (Both woman and animal die). (Leviticus 20:16) [4]
  • Having sex with your father’s wife, as distinct from "your mother", as it was common practice for men at the time to have several wives. (both die) (Leviticus 20:20)
  • Having sex with your daughter-in-law. (Leviticus 20:30)
  • Incest (Leviticus 20:17).
  • (for men): Sex with a man in the same manner as sex with women. Generally interpreted as male homosexuality.(Leviticus 18:22)
  • Marrying a woman and her daughter. They are all burnt to death. (Leviticus 20:14)

A couple of these demand that the "sinners" be burned to death rather than stoned — which was the more usual form of capital punishment. One can wonder why these crimes in particular merit this especially horrible fate.

[edit] Religious laws

[edit] Parents and Children.

[edit] Violent and legal crimes

Deuteronomy 19:20 explicitly identifies that the purpose of this is deterrence. "The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing (malicious and false testimony by one man against another) be done among you." Presumably all the other death penalties are assumed to be for deterrence as well.
  • Ignoring the verdict of a judge – (or a priest!) (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
  • Not penning up a known dangerous bull, if the bull subsequently kills a man or a woman. Both the animal and the reckless owner of the dangerous bull are to be put to death. (Exodus 21:29)

[edit] Things that don’t go anywhere else.

  • Living in a city that failed to surrender to the Israelites. (Kill all the men, make the women and children slaves.) (Deuteronomy 20:12-14)

[edit] Possible grounds for execution.

The following carry the punishment of being "cut off from his people". Some people seem to feel that this is the same as the death penalty, although the ancient Israelites may simply have interpreted it as exile. Modern Jewish law typically interprets this as losing one's share in the afterlife, not a worldly death penalty.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. BBC News: Islam and the apostasy debate
  4. 4.0 4.1 Because the animal obviously has a choice in it.
  5. This is really some kind of "Exterminatus" instruction. The Bible is less specific about individual apostasy within the community. This is also reflected in the Qu'ran, although the Sharia does have a stated law to follow in the event of an individual's apostasy that leads to either imprisonment until conversion, or the death penalty.
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